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Terrorism Fears Likely Benefit Clinton, Not Trump

A political scientist finds fear-mongering is less effective if it isn’t paired with actual policies.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend’s bomb explosion in New York City and stabbings in Minnesota have brought terrorism back to the forefront of the national conversation. Already-skittish Democrats are fearful that this renewed sense of threat will benefit the tough-talking Donald Trump.

Bethany Albertson is highly doubtful. A political scientist at the University of Texas and co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, she argues that a threatening security environment will likely give Hillary Clinton an advantage.

In this assessment, she agrees with the consensus of a group of experts we interviewed in July. In this latest follow-up interview, Albertson provides more perspective on her skepticism.

First, what does the polling say regarding which candidate voters are more comfortable with when it comes to dealing with terrorism?

When people are asked who they trust on terrorism, all of the polls I’ve seen show that Clinton is trusted more on terrorism than Trump. A Quinnipiac poll, which was taken earlier this month, has her ahead on this question 50 percent to 41 percent.

Still, the notion that fears of terrorism are more likely to boost support for Clinton seems counterintuitive. How did you come to that conclusion?

It’s counterintuitive because of the longstanding Republican advantage on terrorism. When you’re feeling anxiety, you want protection. When you’re anxious about an issue that is wrapped up in partisan politics, the party that “owns” that issue wins. For terrorism, that’s the Republicans.

But Trump is not a typical Republican. He doesn’t have the Republican foreign-policy elite behind him. He doesn’t have the support of former Republican presidents.

Does the public care about that? Or even realize it?

It’s a good question. We keep seeing foreign- and defense-policy figures saying publicly that they won’t vote for Trump, or work in a Trump administration. So they’re trying to get their case out there.

Trump has the bellicose language down pat, but he doesn’t have much in the way of actual policies he can point to. In his recent Matt Lauer interview, he insisted he wanted to keep his plan to defeat ISIS secret, leading to considerable skepticism that it even exists. So what matters more — tough language, or actual policies?

[My colleague Shana Gadarian and I] tested that question in a 2011 study, which focused on immigration. We made people anxious about immigration, and then asked them how much they trusted a variety of actors — political parties, real-life politicians such as Barack Obama and then-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, citizens’ groups — to deal with the issue.

In some cases, we only presented the threatening rhetoric they had used; in others, we paired that with their actual policy prescriptions. We took language off their websites. The policies were specific but not too detailed — things like “spend more money on the border patrol” and “provide a path to citizenship.”

We found that people are more trusting in figures when they offer policies with their threatening rhetoric. We prefer our fear-mongering to be paired with policy.

That’s somewhat reassuring.

We see it as a hopeful finding. Anxious people aren’t just attracted to fear-mongers. They want solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.